When Inter beat Milan in October Milan was in crisis and the nerazzurri were on the rise. On Sunday, the roles were reversed.
The 2012-13 season has been one of ups and downs for both of Serie A's Milan clubs. AC Milan (Milan) started the year in the worst possible way, losing five of their first eight matches and falling as far as 15th in the standings. A strong response, however, has seen the team lose only two games since, and brought the team to fourth, two points behind Lazio, who they play at the weekend.
Inter Milan (Inter), on the other hand, started the season off like gangbusters. From late September until early November they won 10 straight matches in all competitions, punctuated by a come-from-behind 3-1 victory at the Juventus Stadium that brought the Bianconeri's 49 match winning streak to an end. But the turn of the calendar brought hard times to the Nerazzurri. They've only won twice in Serie A since the winter break and are clinging to the last Europa League spot by two points, with Fiorentina hot on their heels.
The struggles of the Milan clubs, who collectively have won (or been awarded) seven of the last eight scudetti, have raised concern about the health of the Italian game. The saying goes that with a strong Juventus comes a strong Italy, but solid play from the San Siro is just as important. That said, the struggles of Milan and Inter have shown us a lot about these two squads, and while the signs are a mixed bag, it can probably be said that indications are mostly positive.
Milan in particular is encouraging. Despite losing a who's who of talent this summer—the likes of Clarence Seedorf, Alessandro Nesta, Filippo Inzaghi, Gennaro Gattuso, Thiago Silva and Zlatan Ibrahimovic, with Alexandre Pato also leaving during the winter—many believed that Milan would be able to overwhelm most of the league and finish second to Juventus. The impact was less than it might have been as Inzaghi retired, and the other old hands were nearing the end of their careers when they left, but even the combined €63 million move of Silva and Ibrahimovic to Paris Saint-Germain, which was a clear cost-cutting move, hadn't severely dimmed Milan's early season prospects.
As the Rossoneri cut costs to compensate for both Financial Fair Play regulations and the increasing pressures of the Italian recession, the problems became apparent. The stripped-down defense allowed 10 goals in those first eight games, and the midfield struggled to incorporate the summer's big signing, Riccardo Montolivo. Pato, who was being counted on to stay healthy and replace Ibrahimovic's production up front, found himself on the injured list—again.
Where Zlatan and Pato left a hole, however, a promising youngster stepped up and broke out. In a stretch starting with the team's fourth match of the year and ending in its 10th, Stephan El Shaarawy scored seven of the nine goals the team netted over those seven games.
Perhaps most crucially this season, Silvio Berlosconi and Adriano Galliani showed great patience with Massimiliano Allegri despite heavy pressure from fans and the media to replace the man who delivered the scudetto to Milan two season ago. With the help of El Shaarawy, Allegri helped the team's form stabilize, then kick into overdrive—a revival that inspired Milan brass to make the big move of the winter—bringing Italy international Mario Balotelli in from Manchester City on the last day of the transfer window.
Balotelli's return to his boyhood club prompted a run of four goals in three games, and coincided with Montolivo finally coming into his own in Milan's midfield. The final result: a run of 21 points of a possible 24 since the winter break and capped off with a stunning upset of Barcelona in the first leg of the Champions League Round of 16 that was a tactical masterpiece from Allegri.
Add that to the emergence of full-back Mattia De Sciglio, and even if they are unable to make it back to the Champions League next year the future looks bright for the Rossoneri. Some pieces are needed—most notably a top-line center-back to fully replace Silva and a solid midfielder to pair up with Montolivo the same way Claudio Marchisio and Arturo Vidal team with Andrea Pirlo at Juventus, or Daniele De Rossi on the national team.
On the other side of the spectrum is Inter. Their hot start covered a few important faults—most notably a lack of depth and increasing age at key positions.
A season-ending injury to Diego Milito in the Europa League Round of 32 has reduced the team to Rodrigo Palacio and Antonio Cassano in the attack. The two have been effective, scoring 22 times combined in all competitions, but with things so thin in attack fatigue issues are bound to become problems, especially considering Cassano's health history.
Behind the forward line, age is increasingly becoming an issue. Argentines Esteban Cambiasso, Walter Samuel, and Javier Zanetti are all starting to get long in the tooth. Even Zanetti's famed agelessness is noticeably starting to wear away.
While there is young help in the back in the form of a resurgent Andrea Ranocchia and Brazilian Juan Jesus and 26-year-old Japanese full-back Yuto Nagatomo on the flank, the depth is again lacking. Players like Samuel and Christian Chivu are nearing the end of their runs, and the defensive gains the team had early in the season are starting to regress back to more of what the defense looked like a year ago.
The coaching situation is also less stable. Massimo Moratti has pledged his support for young Andrea Stramaccioni on several occasions, but the manager—once lauded tactically after he engineered Inter's strong finish a year ago—has become increasingly erratic with his squad selection and tactics. In Sunday's derby Milan controlled much of the match, especially up Mattia De Sciglio's left side, and overall his tactical experiments have broken the rhythm of the entire squad.
The news is not all doom and gloom. Inter's youth system is one of the better ones in Italy, and their primavera won last year's inaugural NextGen Series with Stramaccioni at the helm (they won their group this year and face off against Arsenal in the Round of 16 next week). The question will be when the Nerazzurri decide that the time is right to give the youngsters a run out in Serie A competition. If they get a good run out and are successful, the future could indeed be bright for the blue half of the San Siro.
Milan went through the crucible of their early-season struggles and came out looking stronger than they were at the end of the summer transfer window, both in the now and for the future. Inter, on the other hand, has crashed hard since their excellent early form, and they're still in the testing fire. Whether or not their outlook will be the same as their neighbors is yet to be determined. If they come out the same way their neighbors did, Italian soccer will be very strong indeed. If not, the Serie A will have to look for other teams to step up in European competition.